Being a self-employed entrepreneur it is easy to become distracted, easy to start work late, easy to procrastinate, it’s even easy to skip work altogether. I don’t have a boss to report to, I don’t have set work hours. I don’t even an office (I type this 10metres from a beach wearing only a pair of shorts) and any project deadlines I have are enforced solely by yours truly.
Yet despite all this, I am still extremely productive, coaching clients from all around the world, building a successful ecommerce website, creating my own iPhone app, running a blog with nearly 10k visitors a week, reading a book a week and training to improve my own physical performance.
How do I do all of this without having a boss dangling paychecks in front of me or cracking the whip if I’m late to work? Self-motivation? Sure. But I also utilise 13 tips to drastically increase my work productivity. Tips that I’m going to share with you below. I should also mention that the following tips would be useful for all walks of life – whether you’re an entrepreneur, a CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company, a stay at home mum, a uni student or just someone looking to get more out of the day.
Before I even start work, I run through a set of tasks every morning. My routine starts from the moment I wake up, and I run through it every day of the week. It helps set the tone for the work day to come.
The benefits of this routine are numerous. Firstly, it reduces decision fatigue. I know what I’m going to do from the minute I wake up. It also eliminates the risk of procrastination. I know tasks I need to do and the order in which I will do them. It’s become such a habit that my brain is in autopilot every morning when I get up. I feel grounded when I run through my routine. It’s also a great time to get those unenjoyable ‘should do’ tasks out of the way. For instance, I include some stretches and deep breathing in my morning routine. If I don’t do them in the morning they never seem to get done.
Finally, my morning routine prepares my body and mind for the day to come. Just as an athlete will have a pre-set warmup or competition routine that they follow each day prior to training I have my routine that I follow prior to entering work mode.
I’ll go into my morning routine in more detail in a future article, but in a nutshell my routine incorporates movement, gratitude journaling, time for thinking, day planning and coffee!
There are many ways you can do this. Examples include To-do lists, calendar scheduling or using a productivity planning tool. I personally use the Productivity Planner book by Intelligent Change. This helps me work out my day tasks in order of priority – the top task being what I should start on and working down from there.
The Productivity Planner also allows you to allocate chunks of time to each tasks – also known as a Pomodoro. I’ll explain Pomodoro’s in more detail shortly.
I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to successfully plan out your day, the key is to simply make a plan. As the saying goes ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’. Once I have set my days’ intentions and it is clear what needs to be done, it helps me get started on work. Also, by starting with my most important task of the day it helps me make progress in my work week – getting the big tasks done rather than fluffing about doing the smaller, easier, less important tasks.
Your brain, despite being only 2% of your bodies volume, uses 20% of total energy production. Just as an athlete provides the muscles fuel for optimal sports performance, an intellect should provide fuel for the brain for enhanced focus, creativity and cognitive function.
This is a rather comprehensive topic and there are have been many blogs and books written on helping one improve brain function. Whether it’s nootropics such as Alpha brain or Tru Brain, a Ketogenic diet (which some swear by for its cognitive enchaining effects) or simply caffeine and a bit of sugar (my personal go to brain fuel) the key is experimenting to find what works best for you.
However, if you want a piece of advice, make sure you avoid any sort of blood sugar crashes. If you are using any nootropics or higher carb breakfasts, ensure you have adequate fat. Some of my coaching clients use my low carb smoothie for breakfast.. I personally whip up a smoothie with raw milk, coffee, cocoa powder, egg yolks, collagen powder and a sprinkle of organic sugar. If I really need a brain boost (say for a podcast interview) I’ll take a shot of TruBrain fuel.
According to Wikipedia, the Pomodoro Technique is:
“The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are named pomodoros. The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.”
It’s effectively a way of chunking your work day into 25minute blocks with short breaks in between each block. During these ‘Pomodoro blocks’ you focus solely on the job at hand. This is where the Productivity planner really shines. I allocate a set amount of Pomodoro blocks for each task. For instance, I allocated 4 Pomodoro’s to writing this blog today. I know that I can typically get in 8-11 Pomodoro’s in a typical day. So using these time blocks help me map out my day (I also like to wrap up work mid-afternoon so I can train, read books, or do other tasks not related to work).
The beauty of a 25min work burst is that you know you’re against the clock, you have to get some work done as 25minutes really isn’t that long of a time period. Also, you know after the 25minutes is up you have some ‘free time’. This free time may involve going outside for some sun, making a cup of coffee or greasing the groove (more on this soon). The key thing is to avoid distractions like email or Facebook in these free time blocks. You want sometime that will briefly take you away from the job at hand, but won’t suck you into a time wasting social media binge.
To track my Pomodoro’s I personally use a free Mac OS app called Tomighty. It sits on my task bar and counts down the minutes and chimes once the 25minuties are up. There any many apps on the net that do the same job, alternatively you could simply use the timer on your phone.
Tomighty is a free app that runs in my task bar.
A few key points about the Pomodoro technique:
I mentioned the importance of minimising decision fatigue in the routine section. Sometimes restricting the choices, you can make will help you reach the flow state, decrease procrastination and increase productivity. The same can be said about restricting potential distractions.
What are potential distractions? This would include things like social media, your phone ringing, notifications, knocks on your office door, emails etc. etc. I’m sure everyone reading has experienced a time when they were getting things done only to be interrupted by a phone call or a text message. Or perhaps you briefly went onto Facebook only to find you lost 30minutes of your life looking at cat memes or reading political rants.
Sites like Facebook or even news websites are designed to lure us in and keep us on the site. Therefore, sometimes it’s best to avoid these distractions all together. Sure you could simply close your browser, but even then there are times when you think just a quick peak at the news headlines won’t hurt. For these reasons I use and recommend an app called Freedom.
Freedom is a tool that allows you to block certain websites and apps across all your devices. I personally do a bit of trading as a hobby. The downside of this it that the market never sleeps. Prices are updating every second. I used to find myself checking my eToro portfolio every few minutes. If I saw a big change in price I would then dig into the news and open new positions. Also if I saw a big loss I would be completely pulled away from my work.
The biggest benefit to Freedom is its ability to schedule ‘Block Sessions’. So now I have Facebook, news websites and my trading sites blocked from 915am until 4pm Monday to Friday. This gives me a few minutes in the morning to check my portfolio and see what happened in the news overnight, but then access is restricted.
For things like email and phone notifications, the solution is easy – simply turn your phone onto airplane mode when you’re in work mode or in a Pomodoro burst. I don’t block my email with the Freedom app (though it is possible) as often I need to use it for work, instead I minimise my email app and disable all notifications. I only go in there if I need it.
If you aren’t on Facebook, don’t day trade or aren’t receiving text messages every few minutes, chances are you’re frequently distracted by your email. There are many methods and apps used to help keep your inbox clean and distraction free and I’m sure they all work in their own way. However, I’m going to share my tips for distraction free email.
As an online coach it’s important that clients can contact me. Majority of communication comes via email. Therefore, it’s my job to check and respond to email. However, a lot of the time the emails aren’t time critical and can be actioned a few hours later. Therefore, during the day, I make it a rule to only check my emails at certain times – in the morning, at lunch time and then again in the afternoon. This way I spend a few minutes 3 times a day and stay on top of my client’s needs (without constantly checking my inbox all day).
The only problem I had with this approach was that I would see all my other (non client/non important) emails at these 3 time periods. I would see a sales promotion, or a price alert from etoro, or perhaps it was a message from an old friend. Naturally, I would want to click and read these emails. As I didn’t have much time I wouldn’t respond then and there but the email content would play on my mind – distracting me from work.
So I found a solution. I use Gmail for my emails. Gmail allows you to change the way you see your inbox. You can choose from default, important first, unread first, starred first or priority inbox. I believe the worst thing you can do is choose unread first. Why? It’s nearly impossible to keep your inbox clean with this setting.
Instead, I use the ‘Starred First’ email setting. This then splits my email into ‘starred emails’ and ‘everything else’. From here I simply create rules or filters so that my important emails will automatically be ‘starred’ (i.e. Those emails from my coaching clients, from my Virtual Assistant, from my business partner or from my follow up reminders – more on this later) whereas everything else will end up in the ‘everything else’ folder. I then ‘hide’ or collapse the everything else folder so I can’t see the emails within, while I ‘show’ the Starred emails so I can see what’s in this folder.
Now, when I check my email inbox in the morning, at midday or in the afternoon, I only see my starred emails – emails that are important – without seeing all the non-important promotions, newsletters and alerts.
I know what you’re thinking – what about the non-starred emails? When do you read this? Just as I have set times to check my starred emails (3x a day) I allocate certain times to check my non-starred emails – in this case 3 x a week. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On these days when I do my day planning I know to allocate 1 or 2 Pomodoro’s to clearing out my ‘everything else’ email inbox. This way I chunk my emails – I dedicate time to read, action or acknowledge these less important emails. Emails that don’t need to be responded to within 24 hours.
Anyway, I have put together a video explaining how I use this system and how you can set it up.
Bonus Tip – using this system, you can then turn your email into a to-do list. For example, if I have an idea or a site I want to look into, or a book to buy – I can simply email myself this idea knowing that the email will end up in my ‘Everything Else’ folder. Then, when I clear my everything else folder at a later date I can action said task – order the book, flesh out the idea, or cue spend a few minutes looking at the site.
Followup is a Gmail plugin that I have been using for a few years now. If there was only one piece of software that I could use it would be this.
Followup allows you to schedule reminders via your email. For instance, let’s say I want to remember to update a client’s workout program every 4 weeks, I can send an email to ‘email@example.com’ then, in 4 weeks (and every 4 weeks thereafter) I will receive an email with the reminder I created. As this is a non-important email, it will end up in my ‘Everything Else’ inbox folder. Now as I use my emails as a ‘to-do list’ when it comes to me clearing out this folder I will see this email and be reminded to action this task.
But that’s not all you can do with this software, you can also schedule email reminders to come through on a particular date. For example, let’s say I have a potential client called John. I email John about signing up for my next coaching intake. He tells me he’s about to go on holiday and to give him a call or email in two week’s time. Rather than leaving the email in my inbox as a reminder for two weeks, I can simply forward this email to ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ – knowing that it will return to my inbox in two week’s time – reminding me to call John.
These are only a few of the features of the followup.cc software. For the full list of functionality be sure to check out their site. If you are wondering how this tool helps with productivity? The answer is simple – it allows you to offload potential tasks or distractions to a more relevant time. Freeing up cognitive function to focus on the job at hand.
Bonus Tip – if you do use Gmail and the followup.cc plugin, be sure to enable the ‘send and & archive button.’ This enables you to set a reminder to an email like that in the example above and clear it from your inbox at the same time. To enable this, go into your Gmail settings and on the ‘General’ tab you will see ‘Send and Archive’ enable this setting.
I have already explained how blocking distractions is a great way to increase productivity and avoid wasting time in your day. Turning your phone onto airplane mode and using the Freedom app are two effective ways to achieve this. However, there is another small app that can help with work focus. This app is a chrome plugin called ‘Momentum’.
Momentum works in your Chrome browser so that whenever you open a new browser tab you will be presented with a high definition nature image, the time and today’s focus. The ‘focus’ is something you set yourself. So for instance this morning when I opened my Chrome browser and was presented with the momentum screen I entered ‘Finishing my productivity blog’ as todays focus.
Now, should I be tempted to browse the web and look at the latest apple rumours, or the weather forecast for the weekend (remembering that my Freedom app is blocking Facebook and etoro), I am presented with a screen showing me in big bold letters what todays focus should be on. A subtle reminder to stay on target.
Without Momentum installed, whenever I would open a new chrome tab – even if it was for something work related i.e. research for a blog article – I would usually see a google search box and the most popular websites that I visit. Again – it’s only subtle, but those little temptations constantly eat away at your limited amount of will power. As the day goes on you’re going to be more likely to click that macrumors page or extended forecast website. Momentum helps stay focused, preserving your willpower for bigger challenges.
The purpose of this tip is three fold. Firstly, you are attempting to remove outside distractions. Secondly it helps achieve a flow state. Thirdly, it tells those around you ‘I’m busy, do not bother me’.
Even if you don’t like listening to music when working, simply having headphones on your head can stop people coming up to ask small questions (if I train at a commercial gym I will often use this technique for the same reason. Sometimes I simply have headphones on with the cable running into my short pockets – no music playing whatsoever).
If you don’t want to listen to music, you could try playing Binaural beats which may help you alter your brain wave activity – improving flow and creativity.
Personally I chose music that will help with the job at hand. If I’m clearing out emails for instance I’ll often using a faster pace or more aggressive music (for instance Pendulum, or Linkin Park). I find this helps me speed up my work. If I’m working on a blog like I am doing at the moment, I don’t really need this high energy, nor do I want lyrics to distract my creativity so I will play some Trance or even classical music.
I’m sure there are many ways you could use this, but the key is to experiment what works best for you given the task at hand and the environment you are in.
Greasing the groove is a protocol developed by Strength Coach Pavel Tsatsouline. The concept is simple; throughout the day you perform an exercise with perfect form below your maximum capacity. For more on GTG see this article.
For instance, you may be able to do 10 strict pullups before you hit failure. In which case you would do bursts of 5-8 strict pullups throughout the day. The idea is that you never go to failure and you are always well recovered before you ‘grease the groove’. So you would have at least 30minutes between ‘sets’.
What does this have to do with productivity? It has been shown that prolonged inactivity from sitting can downregulate your metabolism, increase appetite and lead to poor posture. Plus, movement makes you feel good about yourself. Psychologists at the University of Illinois found have shown that a 20-minute power walk at lunchtime could be comparable to a course of psychotherapy.
But the reason I like using the GtG method is due to all the exercise I can fit into the day without even noticing it. For example, it’s currently 11:45am and I have already done 5 sets of 3 x 140kg strict form deadlifts. By the end of the day I will have lifted 4200kg of weight, doing 30 perfect form deadlifts. Without breaking a sweet or travelling to a gym. I will reap the strength training benefits without the lost 1-2 hours of gym time.
The other reason why I like GtG is how it fits in with the Pomodoro technique. After every 25minute Pomodoro block I simply go downstairs, do a set of deadlifts, grab some water, kiss my girlfriend and return to work – starting another Pomodoro. Alternatively, if you use the Oura ring as that will remind you when you have been stationary for an extended peroid.
If you don’t have a home gym, then you could simply do some kettlebell swings, or walk up a few flights of stairs in the fire exit, or even do a handful of strict pushups. Regular movement is the key.
A typical days movement using the Grease the Groove method tracked by my Oura Ring. You can see the regular movement intervals throughout the day.
I have mentioned the importance of avoiding distraction and increasing productively numerous times already – it really is that important for great work flow. This is another tip to help minimize distraction.
The way it works is simple – announce your work hours to those in your work place or those that need to contact you. For instance, if you work in an office and your colleague in the desk next to you often disrupts you, simply tell him your day plan each morning. Tell him you want to get XYZ task done before you can chat. Or, better yet, tell him that if your headphones are on you are not to be bothered. Or maybe just say you’re in hardcore work mode from 9 to 12. Save your questions until after 12.
If you decided to use the Pomodoro technique this can also work well here. For instance, I work from home – I don’t have colleagues to interrupt me, my phone is on airplane mode when I’m working and I minimize my email when I’m not needing it. However, my girlfriend is also home during my work hours. She understands my situation and knows that if I don’t get my work done no one else will do it for me.
She also knows my work hours – She knows I work from 915am until 130pm when I’ll stop for an hour lunch break. If she wants to talk to me about something she can do it in the morning before I start work, or in my lunch break.
But she also knows about the Pomodoro technique I use. So if there is something a bit more urgent she will simply peep at my screen to see how long is left on my Tomighty timer – this will show her how much longer I will work before I stop work for a mini break.
I took the time to explain these concepts to her in order to minimize distraction and maximize work flow. You could do the same to your clients, your colleagues, your staff, your housemate or whoever else it may be that often disrupts your work.
Reward yourself. Set goals and a reward for meeting the goal. It may be something as small reading a few pages of your book in the sun, or spending time on Facebook after you have completed the big task for the day. If you have something to look forward to at the end of the day you will be more inclined to work hard during the day.
For example, I always give myself an hour break for lunch. I usually take this around 1pm – typically after I have completed about 6-8 Pomodoro’s. Everything going well I have completed my top 2-3 tasks by this stage. Sure I still have a few more small things to do, but this lunch break gives me time to switch off, get outside, read some of my book, talk to my girlfriend and relax.
Likewise, at the end of the day I reward myself with time on Facebook, time to train, or time on my etoro account. Delayed gratification is a powerful thing. Sure I could get up in the morning and look at my portfolio while scrolling through Facebook, perhaps even reading my book, but these ‘escapes’ are not as enjoyable when I still have work lingering over my head.
However, if I spend time on these interests at the end of the day AFTER I have completed my tasks (or performed a set amount of Pomodoro’s) then somehow things like Facebook or reading or watching a movie are so much more enjoyable. Just like a beer tastes so much sweeter after a hard day’s work (or so I’m told!)
My final tip to increasing your daily productivity is reviewing your work. At the end of the day, once you have finished your work or performed all the planned Pomodoro’s, just before you switch off completely and browse through Facebook, spend a few moments to reflect.
Think about what worked well, what didn’t work well, what distracted you from your work, what could be done better. Ask yourself ‘if you had to relive today, what would you do differently’.
Maybe you forgot to set your phone on airplane mode and a call came through right when you were in a good work flow. Maybe you forgot to put your headphones on and a colleague bothered you with an unimportant question. Maybe you opened up your emails when you weren’t meant to.
Look at what worked well and what didn’t, and then think about what you can do tomorrow so the same problem doesn’t occur. You might need to tighten up your Freedom app, or you may find you lose focus after 20minutes of work so you may want to change your Pomodoro timer to 20minutes instead of 25minutes. Or maybe that nootropic supplement left your feeling jittery so tomorrow you’ll take halve the dosage.
The key idea is to reinforce and keep doing what worked well, while removing or fixing what didn’t work well. There is always something you can improve.
There are my 13 tips to improve your productivity. I hope you learnt a thing or two from this article and if you did please let me know by leaving a comment below. Maybe it was a piece of software that you hadn’t heard about, or the email tricks, or the Pomodoro technique?
Also, if you have your own productivity tips that I haven’t included in this list, please share them below. I’m always looking for ways to improve my work output so I’d love to hear them.
PS. If you were wondering, I used all of these techniques when writing this 4500 word article. It took me 5 pomodoros, and I have now done 6 sets of deadlifts. I know I listened to a lot of music but I couldn't tell you a track name or remember a particular beat. My girlfriend hasn't bothered me, I didn't look at my emails and I'm about to reward myself with lunch in the sun and reading a few pages of my book!